Different generations have their own set of challenges when it comes to the role beauty plays in their lives. The Baby Boomers' struggles are often written right on their cosmetically altered faces. The issues confronting younger women are not always as obvious. There may be decades and life experiences that separate these generations, but they have much more in common than we realize.
I started thinking more about this after seeing "Tiny Furniture," the small, independent film written and directed by 24-year-old Lena Dunham. Among other story lines, she highlights the rebellion taking place among 20-somethings against the pressures created by our beauty culture. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote, "[I]t is Ms. Dunham's refusal to put on the pretty show, to doll herself up, that is the movie's boldest stroke. In her rejection of visual pleasure ... you can see a feminist argument about narrative cinema in bold action."
I am hearing a similar story line when women of Dunham's generation speak up at seminars I give on the psychology of beauty. Most often my audience is filled with Baby Boomers interested in hearing about the book I wrote called "Face it: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change." My talks mostly focus on helping women at midlife, but the interchanges that ensue cover a wide range of topics, from the complicated feelings women have about looking older, to the role anti-aging plays in contemporary society. Occasionally younger women, often brought by their moms, want to talk about their own beauty challenges. The issues raised by these different generations are fascinating and the advice they give each other is enlightening.
First, some facts: Baby Boomers are currently hitting midlife by the millions. Their mothers and grandmothers were women of the feminist revolution who fought hard for freedoms now taken for granted. They were raised with the strong conviction that physical assets should take a back seat to intelligence, abilities and achievements. Power, these Boomers were told, would not come from beauty, but from being true to themselves. Another fact: People are living longer than ever before. This would be good news, except that women are bombarded by the message that a youthful appearance is what will keep them from becoming invisible. Living into one's 80s and 90s is no walk in the park, but it is especially challenging in a youth-obsessed culture. So, the Boomers feel ambivalent, torn by two diametrically opposed cultural currents: Looks were not supposed to matter, but clearly they do. They are proud of their experience, but afraid to show it on their faces.
When Boomer women angst over this issue, 20- and 30-year-olds seem genuinely perplexed, not so much about the aging part, but about the ambivalence. They have their own set of facts. What I hear continually from them is, "Of course looks matter. Every woman knows they are important, in relationships, work, everywhere." Gen Xers and Yers were brought up to assume that paying attention to their appearance is not at odds with becoming powerful and ambitious women. They go hand in hand. To them, the pampering and primping does not betray their feminine beliefs. They believe it's their right to do both and in fact, it's the expectation to do so that is their own struggle. Another fact: women in their 20s and 30s say that there is no down time when it comes to looking good. They feel compelled to appear fashionable at work, at play, at the gym, even going to bed at night. Ambivalence is not their issue, pressure is. No more sweats and t-shirt to relax in. There's Victoria's Secret to wear under the Nike or Adidas workout clothes. Sexy skirts with designer shirts have replaced the practical pants suit for every day work. Even that "I don't care" fashion while out partying is a carefully put-together look that takes hours to create.
In truth, we are all dealing with the role beauty plays in our lives, but feel vastly differently about it. While the Boomers are obsessed with finding the next new potion or procedure, Gen Xers and Yers are endlessly experimenting with the latest fads at Sephora. Boomers reluctantly spend hours removing gray from their hair, but the younger set spends at least as much time highlighting and coloring theirs just to look fashionable. And while Botox and fillers have become popular among Boomers, these procedures are not far from the next generation's minds. Most Millennials believe they will be part of their general cosmetic routine in the next 10 years.
Different dilemmas face different generations. Cher, at age 64, recently talked about what it was like working with her young co-star, Christina Aguilara, in the new movie "Burlesque." Wistfully, she said, "You're around these girls who are 20 years old with perfect bodies, and you remember when you used to have a perfect body." The New York Times writes, "Cher has just two big productions during which she doesn't so much dance as sidle, strut, pose." It's Ms. Aguilera and the other young performers who are required to do the "bending, bouncing and whirling like a team of Eastern European gymnasts on a Four Loko tear." You see, while Baby Boomers envy the youth and beauty of 20-somethings, it's these younger women who feel like whirling dervishes spinning out of control. Once women realize they are, in fact, in this together, they can actually be helpful to one another.